Clearing the Bar

By Zach Hoffman
Adjunct Instructor, Computer Information Technology

Although embarrassing to admit, I used to want my students to fail.  As a professional programmer I often deal with peers who seem unfit for the job, so when teaching I feel a personal responsibility to make sure that only qualified developers pass my courses because the reputation of my college depends upon it.  Until a particular experience with a unique student, I used to think of myself as a gatekeeper more than a coach: someone meant to hold the bar, not help them over it.

One Spring semester I had an Advance Java Programming student who I was certain would be unable to clear the bar.  His questions would have been basic for a first-semester student and his assignments were nowhere near what was being asked for.  We had a discussion early on about his comfort level with the material and it became clear to me that his prerequisite instructor had done him a disservice by letting him pass.  I explained to him that he would not have enough time to “clear the bar” without some exceptional assistance but he insisted on trying.  When he turned in an untenable mid-term assignment, I decided to drop him from the course anyway and suggested that he re-take the prerequisite course.

He ended up re-taking it with me the following semester.

I talked to him many times that semester about programming as well as his career and life goals.  He never seemed entirely convinced about why he needed a programming degree, but he never wavered from his conviction to complete it.  I came very close to dropping him from that course as well and I had to explain to him more than once the difference between a withdrawal and a failure, but he wasn’t interested in hearing it.

As I considered whether or not to drop him I found myself thinking about his position.  What service am I doing this person by giving up on him when he hasn’t given up on himself? I revised my approach: rather than asking him to do more work and read more books I started asking him more questions.  What is missing here?  What can I do to help?  Are you making progress? The change was surprisingly rapid once I started giving him support rather than a challenge.  He narrowly achieved a 2.5 and proceeded to take the Advanced course with me again the following semester.

That semester I started working with him on study skills, independent research, and working with peers for support.  He learned to use the discussion board and collaborate with his classmates.  The student that made it to the second half of that semester was a much different one than the one I had dropped before.  And that is when it really stuck with me that helping someone reach the bar is far more rewarding than when they do it by themselves.